July 17, 2021

Men are from Mars (Hill):Reflections on Ep 4

I just can’t think of two more opposite ways for a man to treat women than the difference between porn and baptism. More to the point men watching porn, and men baptising their ten year old daughters.

If you are anything like me, then you would have teared up a bit at the end of Episode 4 of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, as the speaker describes the mass baptisms that occurred on one day, including the cherry on the cake, his young daughter coming up unannounced to be baptised to him. The audio of that event is breathtaking and tear-inducing. I have baptised both of my children, and it was indeed precious, and that was with plenty of lead time to ensure the tears were somewhat controlled!

There was something about Episode 4, nicely entitled, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct” and its stark contrast between the dudes and the dads. By that I mean the contrast between the slacker life of the porn-addicted “dude” living on the progressive North West Coast of the USA, and the young dads, married with a couple of kids, who get to baptise their kids at Mars Hill. There’s something star dust about it, and the episode captured it well.

Whatever else we want to say about Mars Hill – or about Driscoll in particular – it was that sharp difference, nay, that sweet difference, that highlighted so much of what was good about Mars Hill. And clearly there was something good – many good things in fact – about Mars Hill. I mean, that’s the point, right? Whoever says something like Mars Hill was all bad needs to go and do Sociology 101 again (or for the first time). Whoever says there was nothing bad about it needs to go to cult rehab.

And when we listen to the sordid tales of the porn culture of today that is fuelled by internet speeds that the young addicted men of the late noughties could only wet dream of, then we have to admit, that whatever the alternative to the Mars Hill trainwreck is, we haven’t found it yet.

I mean, one of my friends presents to school groups about porn in the private educational establishments of Australia, where the finest and best of our boys chastise their peers for being “simps”, and expect nude pics of the girls with the snapchat of fingers. And the smartest and most talented of our girls? Well they have to put up with sexual moaning noises every day in class, with nary a teacher doing anything about it. Not to mention the blatant and outright criminal sexual harassment in the corridors.

So before we go “Mars Hill everything bad, blah, blah, blah”, let’s remember for a moment the timeframe it dropped into and what it was addressing. Driscoll was calling out blokes for bad sexual behaviour a good few years before the likes of Meryl Streep had stopped clapping Roman Polanski at awards nights, or Harvey Weinstein had had second thoughts about whether to force himself on yet another starlet after a particularly warm bath.

And as for the mess that the mainlines and mainstreams have gotten themselves into, with the huge levels of confusion around gender and sexual activity, don’t get me started. A day late and a dollar short following the pathway of the Sexular Age is not the answer either.

But it’s the emotional response of that baptism right at the end of the episode that got me. Here were families – not just men – who were given real meaning and real community in a time when both are in short supply, and increasingly so in late modernity. The crisis of meaning, and the rapid increase of loneliness, means that when someone as charismatic as Driscoll, replete with an authenticity program as tight as Mars Hill, arrives on the scene … voila! The result is nothing short of magic.

Magic. And a few spells being cast that were from less savoury places. The fact that men were willing – eager actually – to go to meetings in order to be shouted out and told to pull their pants up, and to take a beating, shows how desperate things are out there in the wider culture.

That they thought being a man involved being berated by another man – the spiritual equivalent of Tyler Durden – was the way to increase their manhood, only highlights the level of that desperation. The great irony of Mars Hill is that the manliness contest was only ever going to have one winner. To put it crassly, you put your manhood in a jar and handed it to Driscoll if you wanted to get any further up the food-chain.

It’s a parody of the gospel. A bad news story in some senses that is designed to reduce you and seduce you. And it’s akin to the story told of Stalin, who when he was asked how he managed to keep the Russian people so loyal, grabbed a chicken that was strutting in and out between his feet under the table in the cafe where he was holding court. Stalin proceeded to pluck every feather from the chicken, and then set it back on the ground. At which point it huddled up hard against his leg, finding nurture and protection from its tormentor. Lesson learned.

And yet, and yet. Amidst all of that torment and confusion, there’s the beauty. And the wonderful moments. And the feeling that life has never been better, relationships never been deeper, conversations never been sweeter. That’s how these things work.

In facc, as I reflect on that, that’s the only reason I can give as to why, after our own often brutal experience at The Crowded House in Sheffield, UK, we decided to remain with the network for a few more years in Perth. I think we thought safety was found in distance.

I well remember our last Sunday at The Crowded House in late 2007. It was the final gathered church service for us and the final day of the first Total Church conference, based around the book of the same name, and attended by a good number of Acts29 leaders from the USA.

I was leading the service, and although I have documented this elsewhere, I’ll explain it again, because as I listened to the last few minutes of that Mars Hill episode, the same deep emotions welled up again in me, that welled up in the speaker. I told the packed congregation that it was our last Sunday in Sheffield and that that very week we would be returning to Australia and, – fatefully as it turned out for my emotions hanging on by a thread – that I wanted us to sing the same hymn that famed missionary Jim Elliott’s church sang when he left on mission to Central America, never to return alive.

And as I did, I just crumbled. I was a mess. I could barely speak. Jill was standing next to me and we were both sobbing. Sobbing at the thought of going home. Sobbing at the thought of leaving behind the deepest, richest church experience I have ever had – even to this day – and coming back to we didn’t know what. We would have died for these people then and there. They had been our life!

Yet, at the same time, it was killing us. Killing our trust. Killing our joy. Killing our certainty.

For you know what? That sweet painful church day was the end of the worst week we had ever experienced at The Crowded House. Tension, mistrust, dreadful conversations around toxic leadership issues.That week was the culmination of the ongoing tensions and concerns, and outright fears, that I and many others were having, about the way this thing was being led.

By all rights we should have been whooping and hollering and rejoicing that Jill, Sophie and I were about to get on that plane that week and would soon be winging our way to sunny safety in Perth, thirteen thousand miles away from Sheffield, and the ongoing struggles we were having with The Crowded House.

Yet there we were, the three of us, sobbing our eyes out at the front, as Steve Timmis walked up, put a tender arm around me and finished the service off with prayer and a song. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house after that. The rest of the week was a blur of grief to us – to everyone.

And in a sense, that’s why, even knowing what we knew, we clung on to our connections with The Crowded House, even after we went home. That’s why we tried to do a TCH church plant. That’s why we invited a couple out from Sheffield to help us plant a couple of years later. And that’s why when it all fell apart within a few weeks of them being here, with all of the old issues raising their head by proxy through them, that was why it was then – and only then – that the true extent of the damage it had done to us was revealed. A damage that took several years to heal. I still find myself on the odd occasion, waking up discombobulated and slightly disturbed, after having a dream that we are back in Sheffield and about to walk into the church again.

So it’s never so simple. Never so simple. Even this past week Jill and I have shared a meal with a couple who were in what is ostensibly a cult, and the grief they felt, as they told wistful stories of deep relationships now broken, made it all come flooding back. There was an internal plausibility structure to the whole set up that gave it a depth, a reality and a sweetness that is completely lacking in the average suburban church experience with its high mobility, commuter belt culture and low relational bar.

Yes Mark Driscoll may have given you a series of kicks in the proverbials. Yes he was the crazy nutbar writing under the pseudonym William Wallace II. Yes he was crass and misogynistic and would today be totally cancelled (along with Chris Rock, off whom he modelled himself). And yes he was giving a big “up yours” to progressive cities like Seattle and Portland, even after he’d said his goal was to serve the city. He got a lot wrong.

But when you’ve been the porno guy, goofing around, half-sleeping/sleeping with your on-again-off-again church going girlfriend, and you think you’re gonna be the next Kurt Cobain, and then suddenly your life is shaken up by something like Mars Hill, and you find yourself, working, serving others, married and faithful, and then baptising your ten year old daughter in front of a church weeping with joy, then maybe, just maybe, you’re not going to join the conga-line of haters lining up to sink the boot in.

And if you don’t believe that, then maybe you need to do Sociology 101 too.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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